Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Book Description:
A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed.

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction — into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist — but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who — born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution — bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.
My Thoughts:
I'm a sucker for Elizabeth Gilbert's writing. There, I admitted it. I adored Eat, Pray, Love mostly because the writing was so intoxicating. The Signature of All Things did the same thing to me. 

The overarching story was so ... just... awesome. Actually awe some. That Ms. Gilbert took the time to meticulously research everything that happens in this book is insane. Holy amazingness, Batman. I seriously thought, by the end of the book, that Alma Whittaker was absolutely a real person, and only a Googlefu meltdown convinced me that she was not. There are so many things that happen in this behemoth of a novel, too. It spans the better part of a century (maybe two. I can't quite remember when Henry Whittaker's story began.) Whew. 

I can't believe that I liked a story about a female botanist with an odd love for moss as much as I did. But I did love it. I didn't want to stop reading it. Again, pretty sure that Gilbert's writing is to blame for all this looooove. 

That said, there are some beefs I had. First, did we really need to read about Alma masturbating so often? Even though it was couched in very delicate terms, it was still present early on and throughout all of the book. Totally, ridiculously unnecessary. Yuck and ugh. 

Second, holy crap this book takes forever. For. Ever. There were times I would sit back and think "absolutely nothing is happening, and I am 3/4ths of the way through the novel." Sure, it's beautifully written, but it could have had so much more to it than just "Alma studied mosses today and for the next 15 years." 

And finally, the ending, or lack thereof, sucked. It just happened so randomly and abruptly. Come on, you're making such a huge deal about Alma getting old, and we've lived all of her life with her (and it took almost as long as actually living it, too, longest novel ever) - let us get some closure on her story. 

All that said, very interesting book with very interesting characters. With the exception of her wandering fingers, I did really like Alma and liked reading her story. I don't know if I'd read the book again just because it is very long, and I don't think it would hold up on a re-read. But dang. I hope someday I can write as intoxicatingly as Elizabeth Gilbert.
4/5 Stars

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